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MSN joins desktop search fray

Beta software launch sees Microsoft take on Google, Yahoo and others in hotly contested race to dominate desktop search.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Microsoft's MSN has unveiled desktop-search technology, entering a hotly contested race to dominate information access on the PC.

The Web portal introduced its MSN Toolbar Suite in a beta, or test version, on Monday. The software lets people search the contents of their hard drive, including Microsoft Outlook e-mail, calendar items, contacts and Office documents. It also lets them navigate the Web with MSN's proprietary search technology, released last month, from points within e-mail and within Windows.

"We've been doing a lot to catch up (in search), but this is an area where we go beyond," Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president for MSN Information Services, said in a conference call announcing the service. Mehdi added that MSN could reach as many as 100 million people with the new software, which the company expects to launch in a finished version next year.

The move pits Microsoft against Google, among others, in a battle for presence on consumers' PCs. Microsoft has long planned to introduce technology for mining files on the desktop, but it has come later to the market than its top search rival Google, which introduced a beta service in October. Yahoo said last week that it will debut software in early January, and Ask Jeeves plans to come out with a product this week.

Desktop search is the latest frontier of development for major search providers, Web portals and software makers. Desktop files can be cumbersome for people to navigate using the search features in current operating systems, and all the companies believe they can improve users' ability to organize or find massive amounts of personal data on the PC. For search companies such as MSN, Yahoo and Google, the desktop could also eventually become a venue for delivering contextual or personalized advertising.

Christopher Payne, a vice president at MSN, said the company will not immediately display ads on the desktop, but if people perform a Web search, it will deliver sponsored search ads.

The MSN Toolbar Suite, which is free, includes an updated version of a toolbar plug-in for Internet Explorer and new toolbars for Windows Explorer, Outlook and the MSN Deskbar.

MSN will eventually embed desktop and Web search into its other applications, too. The company has already added a Web search box to the 7.0 version of its instant messenger service. However, that Web search box queries the current MSN search site, which is still powered by Yahoo technology. Once Microsoft throws its weight entirely behind MSN search, it will be an even more powerful threat to Google's dominance.

MSN said the suite is superior to rival software because it searches more file types, including calendar items, contacts and documents such as music or photo files that contain "metatags." It also includes more points to search for information within Outlook or via the desktop, unlike Google's search technology, which displays results within a Web browser only.

The search software also helps people find information they're looking for by suggesting answers as soon as the user begins to type a letter.

Finally, information is kept private and secure on the PC, Payne said. The software preserves privacy by not caching by default Web pages that people visit, unlike rival tools, Medhi said.

The technology indexes the user's hard drive over hours at first, then it continuously adds to the index as documents are created.

MSN does not plan to add the technology to other Windows environments at this time, Payne said. But he said the company will introduce the tool in other languages sometime next year.

Ultimately, Microsoft plans to build an information tool to answer all people's questions, Medhi said. Such a tool will be developed with great investment over a 10-year span, he said.